Plenty of Room

February 21st 2021 homily on Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15 by Pastor Galen

Half-filled Lifeboats

On April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and was swallowed up in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Over 1,500 people perished as “the ship that not even God could sink” sank. Only about a third of the passengers lived to tell the story.

Although the death toll was staggering, the greater tragedy was that many more people could have been rescued, since most of the lifeboats were only half-filled.

The Titanic was certified to offer lifeboat space to 1,178 people. But of the twenty lifeboats lowered overboard, only a few were filled to capacity. 

The first lifeboat had room for 65 people, yet only 28 boarded. Another boat left with 24 spaces unfilled, another with only 26 of 65 spaces filled. One lifeboat could have accommodated 40 people, but only 12 people were on board. In all, only 711 passengers and crew were rescued, while 40 percent of the total lifeboat spaces remained unfilled. 

In the ensuing months, investigators sought to determine why so many lifeboat seats had been unfilled. They uncovered some startling realities. 

It was learned, for example, that some of the Titanic crewmen mistakenly assumed that filling the lifeboats to their “sea capacity” would cause the boats to break in two during the lowering process. Their extreme caution forced many people to plummet into the icy waters. But another sad reality was that quite a few of the passengers were reluctant to board the lifeboats because they didn’t feel that there was an urgent need. After all, the ship was supposedly “unsinkable!” 

Rend Your Hearts: Claiming the Promise

This month we begin a new sermon series for the season of Lent entitled, “Rend Your Hearts: Claiming the Promise.” Now I’ll admit that at first glance this may seem like an odd title. Rending, or tearing, evokes quite a different feeling from the phrase Claiming the Promise. And yet we’ll see that during this season of lent we are being invited not only to invite God to tear open, or expose our hearts, and to turn to God in humble repentance — but we’re also being invited to receive the wonderful promises that God has given to us. The grace, mercy, and healing which Jesus offers to all. 

Each of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, readings during this season have to do with the idea of covenant. Covenants are sort of like contracts. They’re sort of legal agreements, entered into by at least two parties. And typically each party has an obligation to fulfill. But we’ll see this morning that the covenant God made with Noah and with all of creation, and the promises that God has given to us, are a little different from what we might expect. We’ll also see that, like the lifeboats on the Titanic, there is plenty of room for anyone and everyone to receive the promises that God offers to us — in particular the promise given to us through Christ Jesus — if we’ll only accept and believe.

Plenty of Room on the Ark

In the Bible, in Genesis chapters 6 through 9 we read the account of Noah, whom God instructed to build an ark (almost the size of the Titanic) in order to save his family and two of every kind of animal on the face of the earth from a devastating worldwide flood.

God had originally determined to wipe out all of the people and animals on the face of the earth, because, according to Genesis chapter 6, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5-6). But “Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord” (Gen 6:8) and so God decided to spare Noah and his family. 

God provided Noah with specific instructions regarding the exact specifications and dimensions and even the types of materials Noah should use to build the ark. 

It must have taken Noah and his family years to build the ark and gather all the animals. A building project of this magnitude would have garnered much attention from Noah’s friends, family, and neighbors. While we don’t have much evidence that Noah and his family tried to convince others to join them on the ark, 2 Peter 2:5 refers to Noah as “a herald of righteousness” which suggests that he and his family did try to persuade others to join them.

In the end, however, it was to no avail. Only Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives boarded the ark. (1 Peter 3:20 confirms that there were only eight persons who were saved on the ark).

Now, according to the dimensions provided in Genesis, Noah’s Ark was 7 stories high, and the length was equal to 1.5 football fields. Even though the ark was filled with animals, it seems safe to assume that there would have been plenty of room for more people to join them in the ark. But like many of the people on board the Titanic, it seems that the people of Noah’s day were also unconvinced of their need for salvation from the flood. Jesus says that people of Noah’s day “were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them” (Luke 17:27).

The ark, like the lifeboats of the titanic, floated away with plenty of room inside, while the world was devastated by the flood. How sad that the people of Noah’s day did not heed the warnings. They thought they were invincible, that the world was indestructible. How wrong they were.

A Covenant with Every Creature

After the flood, and after Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, we see a turning point in the narrative.  We see God making a promise that extends far beyond Noah and his family. A promise that extends all people in every place and every time. A promise that extends even to all of Creation. As we mentioned earlier, God calls this a covenant, and yet there is something quite unique about it.

Genesis chapter 9 tells us that 

God said to Noah and to his sons with him…I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:8-15).

Normally a covenant involves actions on the part of both parties. If you do this, then the other party will do that. Or, if one side fails to live up to their side of the bargain, then the other side is released from their responsibilities. 

But in this case, God made a covenant with all of humanity, and indeed with every living creature on the earth, but there seem to be no obligations on the part of the other parties! God is the solo partner here, the only one who is bound by oath to keep their side of the contract.

Indeed it would have been difficult for the wild and domestic animals, for the birds of the air and the fish of the sea to keep their side of a bargain. And similarly, God saw the plight of humanity, and realized that we too are prone to fail again and again. And so in this case, God made a covenant with all of creation never to destroy the world again by flood. God made a promise, symbolized by the rainbow that comes after a storm, as a visible symbol and reminder to us of the promise God made to us.

When we see a rainbow, then, we are reminded of God’s promises, and of God’s salvation. We are reminded that God desires for all people to experience God’s mercy and grace, and forgiveness. God knew that so often we go astray, that so often we choose the wrong path. So often we ignore the warning signs, the dire consequences of our situation. We fail to recognize that the path we’re on will lead to destruction. 

And so God made a lopsided covenant with humanity — a promise to never destroy the earth again with a flood.

That does not mean, of course, that we will never experience repercussions for our wrongdoing, or that the earth will never experience judgement in some other way. But the covenant, and the rainbow which is the sign of that covenant, is a reminder to us of God’s love, and mercy, grace, and forgiveness. I recognize of course that rainbows have taken on a socio-political meaning that perhaps extends beyond the Biblical text, but even in the Biblical narrative, the rainbow is a reminder to us that there is plenty of room, that there always has been and always will be. And that in response, we are invited to turn to God in faith, and repentance, and humble obedience. 

Jesus our example

Jesus is of course our example in this, as he is for us in all things. Jesus, who in humble obedience was baptized by John in the river Jordan, identifying with the people of God, despite the fact that he was sinless, and therefore he had no sins for which he needed to repent. 

After his baptism Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he endured temptation, further identifying with the plight of all humanity. Jesus suffered, and was rejected, and ultimately experienced death on a cross, and yet through it all Jesus was victorious. He refused to give in to temptation, refused to retaliate, refused to stop loving even his enemies. He submitted himself in humble obedience to God, giving his life to save humanity. 

And once again, in Jesus, God made a one-sided covenant with us. During the last supper, as Jesus broke bread with his disciples and passed around the cup of wine, he told his disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Jesus gave his life for us. It’s an unconditional gift, offered to us at no cost to us. But it’s up to us whether or not we accept it, and whether we choose to get on the lifeboats, to enter into the ark of salvation.

There is plenty of room in the ark. Plenty of room at the table. Jesus welcomes all to come. No one who repents of their sins and looks to Jesus in faith will be turned away. No doubt there will are many who will reject this free gift of salvation. Many who will continue on with their lives, eating and drinking, pretending that everything is OK. Many will think there is not an urgent need, that there is plenty of time. 

We do not know how long God will continue to wait. We do not know when the end will come, or when Christ will return. And so we must not give up. We must not give in to the temptation to think that everything is OK. We must be vigilant, paying attention to the warning signs around us. We must respond in faith, rending our hearts, and claiming the promises that God has given to us.
And so let us receive the great salvation that has been extended to us, the covenant that God has made with us. And let us proclaim to the world, as Jesus did, that “’The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’” (Mark 1:15). Like Noah, may we too be heralds of righteousness. May we not be satisfied with half-filled lifeboats, but may we continue to invite anyone and everyone to join us in the ark, remembering that God’s kingdom is one of radical inclusion and generosity. Christ’s arms welcome all who come in faith and humble obedience. May we too welcome all with open arms.

Unfiltered

February 14th 2020 Homily on Mark 9:2-9 by Pastor Galen Zook

Zoom Filter Mishap

Earlier this week, a lawyer in Texas made the news because he was set to appear in court via the video conferencing software Zoom. Unbeknownst to him, however, a filter was turned on on his computer’s camera that made him look like a very adorable cat. The lawyer clarified to the judge that he was not in fact a cat, and that he was fully prepared to go forward with the court proceedings while he and his secretary attempted to turn the filter off. It was quite humorous, and seemed to lighten the mood of the court proceedings. 

Although the camera filter obscured the lawyer’s appearance, the Zoom filter mishap actually revealed some aspects of the lawyer’s true personality that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We learned that he has a pretty good sense of humor, since in later interviews he was able to laugh about what had happened. But we also saw just how dedicated this lawyer was to his job, since he was fully prepared to proceed with the trial despite the fact that he looked like a cat. The camera filter may have obscured his appearance, but it revealed something true about him.

Transfiguration

In Mark chapter 9, Jesus went up on a mountain with three of his closest disciples, “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus” (Mark 9:2-4).

The word “transfigured” here simply means “changed” or “transformed.” There, on top of this mountain, Jesus’s appearance was transformed. The experience he had on the mountaintop wasn’t some sort of Zoom filter mishap, but it did reveal to us something of Jesus’s true personality and character that up until that point had been somewhat obscured.

Until then, the disciples thought that Jesus was merely a person who happened to have some miraculous powers. They had no idea that he was the Son of God. Prior to this, in Mark 8, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). They replied that some people thought he was John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the other prophets who had come back to life. When he asked them who they thought he was, Peter answered “you are the Messiah.”  but most likely Peter was thinking of an earthly Messiah who would bring about an earthly kingdom. He had no concept at that point of Jesus’s divine nature.

But up there on the mountain, as Jesus’s appearance was transformed in front of them, Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of a reality that had been obscured up until this point. They caught a glimpse of Jesus’s purity and divinity, his divine majesty. For a brief period of time, the veil was pulled back, the filter was taken off, and they saw Jesus in his glory.

Of course, up there on that mountain, Jesus was the same as he had been all along. It was only his appearance that was changed. All throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was both human and divine. He was just as much God as he was human, and just as human as he was God. 

100% God, 100% Human

Early on in Church history, after Christ’s death and resurrection, followers of Christ tried to break down just how much of Jesus was human and just how much of him was divine. Some thought that perhaps Jesus was 50% God and 50% human. Half and half. 

Others thought that Jesus was 100% God, but that he just looked like a human while he was here on this earth. In their minds, then, on the mountain when Jesus was transformed, the disciples finally saw him for who he really was. 

Others thought the opposite. They thought that Jesus was just a human who simply had divine attributes. This is in fact the perspective that many people in our world hold today. They acknowledge that Jesus was a significant historical figure. Many even believe he was a wise teacher who had very good things to say, but they don’t believe he is worthy of worship and adoration, or that his words are authoritative for our lives.

But in the Scriptures we see that Jesus was 100% God, and 100% human. “Fully God and fully man” as it has often been said. Now I know that for all of the mathematicians out there, you might be wondering, how can someone be 100% one thing, and 100% of another? Doesn’t that add up to 200%? How is that possible?

Well the simplest answer, which may or may not be to your liking, is that “with God all things are possible,” as Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 19:26. There are some mysteries about God that we’ll never understand. We just need to take them on faith, believing and trusting that they are true. 

But one way that I like to think about it, which might be helpful to some of you, is that each of us function simultaneously in different roles. I am my wife’s husband, but at the same time, I’m a father to my children. I am both a husband, and a father. I’m not 50% a father, and 50% a husband. I am fully both at the same time. (This analogy falls short of describing Jesus’s simultaneous divinity and humanity, since my role as a husband and father is in relation to different people, whereas Jesus was fully God and fully human in his very essence and being, but it helps me in some small way to wrap my mind around it).

The point is that even though Jesus laid aside much of his divine power in coming down to this earth and taking on the form of a person, he did not stop being God, and as such he revealed God to us all throughout his earthly life and ministry. When he was healing people and casting out demons, and teaching, performing other miracles, he was both God and man. This experience of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain simply revealed this truth to his disciples.

I believe this is important for us to understand, because so many people today hold a false view of God. So many people have so much baggage, and so many preconceived ideas about who God is. They think that God is distant, or unloving. Some think that God is standing there, ready to squash them when they mess up. Others think that God has just sort of abandoned us, that God created the world but then just left us on our own. They think that God really doesn’t care at all about what we do, and so we can live our lives however we want.

But Jesus is the clearest picture, the clearest manifestation that we have of God. In Jesus we see a God who is not distant or far off, but a God who is close to us, who understands our reality. We see a God who cares about justice and righteousness, who will hold us accountable for our actions or inactions. But we also see a God who loves us so much that God sent Jesus down to this earth to live among us, to show us the way. In Christ we see that God has not abandoned us, God has not left us to our own devices. In Jesus, God is with us.

Jesus — the Fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets

For Peter, James, and John, the experience of being up there on the mountain with Jesus must have been shocking and awe-inspiring. On the one hand it confirmed their hopes and conviction that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Anointed One that they had been waiting for all their lives. But it also greatly expanded their understanding of who Jesus was. They must have realized that day day Jesus was so much more than they had ever hoped or imagined.

Not only was Jesus’s appearance transformed on the mountaintop that day, but Moses and Elijah (who had lived a thousand years before the time of Christ) appeared beside him, talking with him, standing in solidarity with him. Moses, the lawgiver, who gave the nation of Israel the Ten Commandments and the first five books of the Bible. Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of Israel. Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus that day reveal that Jesus’s life was in fact the fulfilment of all the law and the prophets, that all of Scripture had in fact been pointing the way towards him, that all of history in fact had been leading up to this moment.

Coming Back Down the Mountain

Peter, James, and John didn’t know what to say or do in response. It must have been overwhelming, to say the least. Peter piped up and suggested that they stay there on that mountain top, and that they build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, so Jesus could live up there on the mountain and remain in his glorious appearance forever.

From Peter’s vantage point, he imagined that Jesus would much rather stay up there on the mountain than to come back down and face the religious and political leaders who were conspiring together to trap Jesus. A few days before this, Jesus had told his disciples that he was going to “[suffer], and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31). And so from Peter’s perspective, why wouldn’t Jesus want to just stay up there on that mountain in all of his glory forever?

But what Peter didn’t realize was that Jesus had already made his choice to come down the mountain. He had long before chosen to come down to the earth, to live among us, to experience the same things we experience. To experience our pain, and suffering and grief. To identify with us. And he had made this choice because of his great love for us. He knew that we were heading down the path towards destruction. We needed God to intervene. And so Jesus came down to this earth to live among us, to show us a different way, and ultimately to give his life for the world.

Building a dwelling and staying up there on the mountain was not a possibility for Jesus. It would have defeated his whole purpose in coming. And so Jesus came back down the mountain. Back down to teach us, to live among us, and to point us in the direction we should go. And ultimately to die on the cross in our place, to make it possible for us to be reconciled to God and one another.

Down the mountain, and Out into the world

For Peter James and John, following Jesus meant not only going up the mountain with Jesus, but also coming back down, and continuing to follow him as he ministered to the sick and those who were oppressed by the Enemy, and as he proclaimed the Good News to the poor and to the least of these.

Occasionally, we have experiences in our walk with God that feel like mountaintop experiences. We go away for a retreat, or we come together for worship, and we experience a closeness and intimacy with God, and we don’t want to leave.

But like Jesus and his disciples, we’re called to come back down the mountain. To go out into the world, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ through word and deed to those around us. We’re called to help remove the filter that’s been placed over people’s eyes that prevents them from seeing Jesus for who he really is.

When Jesus was here on this earth he inhabited a physical body. But now as the Church, we are called to be the body of Christ. The living, moving, breathing, physical manifestation of God’s presence in this world.  Yes we still have flaws, we make mistakes. But God is transforming us into the people God wants us to be. And when we serve and love others as Jesus taught us to do, we help remove the filter so that others can see Jesus for who he is.

In the back of our church, in the Food Pantry area, there’s a sign that says “the food and clothing you receive here today are given in the name of, and with the love of Jesus.” This is what it means to make Jesus known in the world.

And so this morning, let us ask God to remove the filter from our own eyes so we can more clearly see Jesus for who he is. And then let’s proclaim the Good News of Jesus through our words and deeds to a world that is so desperately in need of God’s healing, mercy, and love.

Temperature Check

February 7th, 2021 Homily on Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39 by Pastor Galen Zook

She Began to Serve

Many of us can probably remember when we were younger, our parents or grandparents would touch our foreheads to check and see if we had a fever — or as my mom used to say, “a temperature,” when we complained we weren’t feeling well. It’s amazing how accurate that test can be! Probably as accurate as many digital thermometers.

Of course, if you’ve ever tried, it’s much more difficult to check your own temperature using that method. It’s a method that really only works when you have another person’s body temperature to compare it to.

In our Gospel lesson today, we see Jesus going to the house of Simon and Andrew, two of his first followers. When he walks into their house, he’s told that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever. He walks over to her bedside, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. Immediately the fever leaves her, and she gets up and begins to serve them. 

Now, truth be told, if Jesus were to walk into most of our houses today, the order of events might be quite the opposite. Jesus might find us scurrying around the house, working frantically to get things done even if we’re not feeling well. Jesus might walk over to us, place his hand on our forehead to check our temperature, and say to us, “you need to go lie down and rest.”

You see, many of us don’t know when to stop working. It’s hard to take a break and rest. There’s always more things to get done, always more work to do. Even when we’re sick, we rarely take a day off.

Working While Sick

Several years ago, a survey was done in which it was reported that 90% of American workers say they have gone to work sick either “frequently” or “sometimes.”

Of course the survey was done pre-Covid times, before regulations were put in place to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. But in this season, when a lot of us are working from home, I’m sure that even more people are pushing through and working even when they’re not feeling well, because the reasons that people gave in that original survey are still true today, even in the midst of the pandemic.

54% of American said the most common reason they went to work sick was that they had too much work to do, followed by 40% who said that they did not want to use a sick day, and 34% who said they felt pressure from their employer to work even when they were sick.

With survey data revealing that only 10% of Americans never go to work when they are sick, Simon’s mother-in-law is someone that we should pay attention to and seek to emulate today.

Knowing when to Pull Back

Simon’s mother-in-law knew when to pull back, she knew when to lie down and take a break. She knew her limitations, she knew that the world would not stop while she lay down to rest. It was only after she experienced healing that she got up to serve. 

Now if we were to look at this through a spiritual lens rather than a purely physical lens, we could say that she served Jesus in response to what Jesus had done for her. She was not working frantically to try to earn Jesus’s favor or attention, but instead her service flowed out of the love and compassion that she received from Jesus.

Simon’s mother-in-law is an example for us as we recognize that we are physical beings in need of physical rest, and we are also spiritual beings who are dependent upon the power and presence of Jesus in our lives as we seek to serve others.

A Messiah Complex

Some of us, on the other hand, might tend to think that the world revolves around us, that if we lie down to take a break, the world might come to a screeching halt! This has often been called a “messiah complex.” When someone has an over-inflated sense of self-importance and works non-stop because they think that the world depends upon them, we might say that “they think they are the Savior of the world.”

But interestingly enough, even Jesus in this passage (who literally was the Messiah and the Savior of the world) took time to pull back and to rest!

After news got out that Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law, Mark tells us, 

The whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed (Mark 1:32-35).

I used to think that it was odd that Jesus prayed. I mean, Jesus was God! So wasn’t praying sort of like talking to himself?

We don’t know exactly how much of his divine power and knowledge Jesus lay aside in order to come down to this earth and to live among us, but I do think that it was significant that Jesus went away by himself, and spent time communing with God the Father. 

The Gospel authors frequently highlight the fact that Jesus got away to pray, or that he looked up to heaven and prayed before performing various miracles. Jesus’s life and actions are a model and example for us in the way we ought to live our lives. And so when we see Jesus going away by himself and spending time in prayer, it is a clue and an indication to us that we should do the same.

Even Youths Grow Weary

The next morning, when Jesus’s disciples woke up and joined him, they told him that many people were looking for him. Most likely there were more people who were sick, more people who wanted to meet this amazing miracle worker. But Jesus had, through prayer and discernment, determined that it was time to move on, that there were more towns and villages he needed to preach to, more people to heal in other places.

This is the sort of clarity that comes when we pull back, and take the time to discern where God is calling us to serve. In the midst of the busyness and franticness of everyday life, it’s difficult to think clearly, or discern where God might be leading us to serve.

Last week we talked about the importance of silencing the voices around us so that we can hear from God. And I think today as we look at the example of Simon’s mother-in-law and of Jesus, there’s an invitation here for us to withdraw, to take time to listen and discern where God is calling us to spend our time, energy, and resources in this next season. If even Jesus needed to do this, then so do we!

In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet Isaiah, who was writing about 700 years before the time of Christ, said these words: 

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Isaiah 40:28-31).

Even youths sometimes faint and grow weary, and even the young become exhausted at times. All of us, young and old, are finite beings who have limitations. It’s important for us to periodically retreat and rest, to take some time alone with God, listening and discerning God’s voice. As we silence the voices around us and as we take the time to listen, we’ll gain further clarity of thought and mind as to where and how God wants us to serve.

Simon’s mother-in-law knew this was important, and so did Jesus. And so should we. 

Spiritual Self Check-up

And so, right now, I want to encourage you to take some time to ask Jesus to check your temperature. Imagine if Jesus were to walk into your house today, if he were to follow you around for a while, and observe how you are living. Imagine him placing his hand on your forehead and checking your temperature.

Would Jesus tell you that you need to go lie down and rest for a while? That you need to entrust your life, your job, your family, your household, to him? Would Jesus say to you, as my wife’s high school students like to say, “you’re doing too much!”

If so, I want to encourage you to take a look at your calendar, and I want you to schedule a vacation day when you can just sit down, and do nothing, and not feel guilty about it. Perhaps you might take a walk outside (if it’s not snowing), or spend some time writing out your thoughts. You might want to make a list of all of your roles and responsibilities, and lift them up before the Lord.

Now some of you might find that your list is short. Maybe you don’t know your spiritual gifts, or how Jesus might be calling you to serve. Perhaps Jesus is saying to you, “it’s time to get up and start serving!” Here in our church we have many opportunities to serve, even in this season. If Jesus is inviting you to rise up and serve others but you don’t how or where, I’d be happy to do a “spiritual gifts” inventory with you, to help you identify how God has uniquely equipped you to serve others. 

On the other hand, there are others who might, through prayer and discernment, realize that you’re in a season of life where God is calling you to pull back, or to begin pouring into the next generation. Many of us have been serving the Lord for many years. That doesn’t mean that it’s time to stop or quit, but it might mean that we need to identify others that we can train up, to pass along the wisdom that we’ve received over the years, so that the work does not end with us.

Wait on the Lord

All of us are called to serve the Lord in some way. We all have unique gifts, we all have unique skills that we can use in service to God. But none of us are the Messiah, none of us are the Savior of the world. We cannot change the world on our own. We need God, we need each other. We need to recognize our own frailty and our own limitations. We need to pull back periodically, to rest, and to hear from God. And then, and only then, can we rise up and serve the Lord.

Silencing the Voices

January 31st 2021 Homily on Mark 1:21-28 by Pastor Galen

The Beginning of Jesus’s Public Ministry

Over the past few weeks we’ve begun journeying with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, and then endured a time of testing and temptation in the wilderness. When Jesus began his public ministry he began by proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). 

Jesus then began calling disciples to join him in his mission. He walked by the Sea of Galilee and called Simon and Andrew, and James and John — fishermen who were right in the midst of casting their nets into the sea. But they immediately left their nets behind to follow him.

Now here in verse 21 of Mark chapter 1, we see Jesus going to Capernaum, a small fishing village on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. And on the Sabbath  day, the day of worship, he went into the synagogue and began teaching.

This might strike us as odd for a couple of reasons. First, up until this point Jesus has been preaching outdoors, and so we might wonder why he is going into a synagogue to preach. And secondly, it might seem strange that he could just walk into a place of worship and begin teaching.

But synagogues were not just places of worship, they were also community centers, and places for prayer and Bible study and discussion of the Scriptures. It was not uncommon for local synagogue leaders to invite visiting teachers to give lectures, especially on the Sabbath day. By this time, Jesus had established himself as a traveling teacher, or rabbi, and most likely the local religious leaders were curious to hear his perspective on the Scriptures.

The Authority of Jesus

But when they heard Jesus teach, Mark tells us that “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). 

The scribes in those days were highly trained scholars and interpreters of both legal and religious. Scribes were the people who copied documents by hand (since there were no printers or photocopiers in those days), and they did a fair amount of translation work as well. Because they were some of the few literate and highly educated people in a typical village, they were often tasked with translating and teaching the Scriptures. 

But apparently they were not known for their authoritative teaching. Perhaps they focused too narrowly on trying to decipher just the right conjugation of verbs when translating documents, or perhaps they were so focused on the technicalities of the law that they failed to show how the Scriptures were relevant to everyday people’s lives. Either way, it was instantly recognizable among all who were present that day that Jesus’s teaching was different. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Freedom from Oppression and Sin

But the scholars who were present in the synagogue that day were not the only ones who recognized the authority of Jesus.

Mark tells us, 

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him (Mark 1:23-26).

This must have been a rather frightening but awe-inspiring experience for those who were there in the synagogue that day. To us, demon possession might conjure images in our minds from movies such as The Exorcist (which, full disclosure, I’ve never seen) or movies about supernatural creatures such as werewolves or vampires. 

No doubt there are probably some among us who do not believe in the existence of demons and who might want to explain this story away as a first-century attempt to describe a case of mental illness or an epileptic seizure.

But the timing of this event is what is intriguing to me here, because the authority of Jesus had just been established. The people present that day recognized the power in Jesus’s preaching, and the authority of his teaching. And then right away, immediately, the forces of evil begin to manifest themselves in their midst. 

Most likely this man had sat in the synagogue many times before, and listened to the teachings of the scribes and elders. Perhaps he had even participated in discussions of the text, or had simply sat, quietly listening. But, in the same way that impurities are rise to the surface when silver or gold are subjected to intense heat, something about the power and authority of Jesus’s teaching caused the evil that had been buried deep inside of him to come spewing forth.

Silencing the Voice of Evil

Now interestingly enough, the words that came out of this man’s mouth were technically true. The demon was correct that Jesus was from Nazareth, and that he was and is the Holy One of God. And yet, Jesus commanded the demon inside this man to be quiet. Even before commanding the demon to come out, he silenced the voice of evil.

Euthymius, a Christian writing in the 4th and 5th centuries, explained it this way. He said that Jesus was teaching us never to believe demons, “even when they say what is ostensibly true. For since they love falsehood and are most hostile to us, they never speak the truth except to deceive. They make use of the truth as a kind of bait.”

Although the words coming out of the man’s mouth were true, they were inherently deceptive, intended to cause fear and panic among those listening to Jesus teaching that day. The demon wanted the people to think that Jesus was someone to be feared — that he had come to destroy them. The demon was manipulating the truth to cause chaos and distraction, to cause the people to be afraid of the One who had actually come to rescue them from the stronghold of the Enemy. 

But Jesus wouldn’t have it. He wouldn’t allow the demon to even speak another word. He silenced the voice of evil, and commanded the demon to come out of the man. And in so doing, Jesus freed this man from the stronghold that the demon had over his life.

And all the people were amazed, “and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’” (Mark 1:27-28). Already here in Mark 1 we see Jesus using his power and authority to break down the strongholds of the Enemy, to free people from bondage and slavery to sin, and to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom through word and deed.

Silencing the voices of evil in our midst

We live in a day and age where most of us have never encountered demonic possession of this sort. We may hear stories of this happening in other parts of the world, but most of us have never seen this for ourselves. And because of that, many of us might be skeptical that this sort of demonic possession still happens today.

But I think that something that we probably can all agree on is the very real presence and existence of evil in our world today. We see and hear things that happen in our world that we know are just wrong, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize how easy it is for evil to gain a foothold in our lives as well.

Now I want to reassure you, that if you have given your life to Christ, then you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you. And from my understanding of the Scriptures, when we have the Spirit of the Living God living inside of us, we do not have to worry about this type of demonic possession overtaking our lives. That’s what we see here in Mark 1 — even the demons flee when they encounter the presence of Jesus! So we can put aside our fears, and rest in the authority and power of God.

And I believe that’s the first takeaway for us today! If we have the power of the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we do not have to fear the Enemy. If you’re listening or watching today and you’ve never given your life over to Christ, send us a message — myself or any of the church leaders would love to pray with you and share with you how you can do that today.

Secondly, we need to actively find ways to silence the voice of the Enemy in our lives. Some of us live with doubts, and fears, depression, and anxiety. It feels like you have a constant voice in your mind telling you to be afraid, or to worry. Some people might just tell you to pray more, but I would also say to consider seeking out a Christian counselor or therapist. There’s no shame in going to counseling or therapy. And if they’re good, they’ll be able to tell you whether you actually need therapy or not! (I have a good relationship with several Christian licensed professional counselors in the area, so let me know if you need a referral!)

Maybe depression or anxiety is not what you struggle with, but I think all of us need to find ways to shut out the noise. There are so many voices that try to distract us and pull us away from God today. If you’ve heard me preach very often you know that I love talking about “hearing from God.” But before we can hear from God, we need to turn off the noise and the chaos that is all around us. 

For some of us, that might mean taking a break from social media, or turning off the TV or radio for a certain part of the day. Getting out in nature, going to a park and talking a walk in silence and solitude. You might try Christian meditation, which is meditating on a word or phrase from Scripture for a few minutes at a time. We need to find ways to turn off and shut out the voices that try to pull us away from God.

And lastly, we need to make sure that we’re careful about the pieces of news that we share and pass along to other people.  Right now there’s a lot of wacky conspiracy theories out there, a lot of people actively trying to spread misinformation. Sometimes the things we hear might even be technically true or partially true, but we need to think before we share them with others. Will this actually be helpful to them? Will this cause them to trust God more, or will it cause them to hate or turn against God?

And so this morning, let’s remember and take hold of the authority that we have in Jesus. Let’s turn off and shut off the voices of the Enemy. Let’s praise and worship Jesus for who He is. Let’s give Him our all, our whole selves, and let’s not give the enemy even a foothold in our lives. 

Let us pray.

Follow Me

January 24th, 2021 homily on Jonah 3:1-5 and 10, and Mark 1:14-20 by Pastor Galen Zook

Wrong Turn

How many of you have ever trusted someone or something to get you where you were going, but you ended up in completely the wrong place?

In January 2013, a 67-year-old Belgian woman, was driving to pick up a friend in Brussels, about 90 miles from her home. But based on the faulty directions she got from her GPS, she drove all the way to Croatia—nearly 1,000 miles away. The journey took the woman across five international borders. She stopped several times to get gas and take naps, but she kept pressing onward until she hit Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.

After a few days her son got worried and called the police, who located Sabine by following her bank statements. She told a Belgian reporter, “I was distracted, so I kept going. I saw all kinds of signs, first in French, then in German, and finally in Croatian, but I continued driving because I was distracted. When I passed Zagreb, I told myself I should turn around.”

Now maybe you’ve never accidentally driven all the way to another country before, but probably all of us have followed someone or something that led us astray. 

In situations like that, it’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve made a mistake, and it’s even more frustrating to have to turn around and go all the way back. But eventually we need to face up to the fact that our trust was misplaced, we went astray, and we need to turn around and head in the right direction. Stubbornly continuing forward will only take us further and further away from our intended destination. 

Jonah and the Ninevites

In the book of Jonah we have a story about a people who were headed in the wrong direction. The people who lived in the city of Nineveh, were a violent people, known for their brutality and oppression. They worshipped false gods, and they participated in all sorts of idolatrous rituals. They were very much going the wrong way, they just didn’t know it.

Jonah, the prophet God called to go and warn them of the coming judgment, was also headed in the wrong direction. Rather than going to Nineveh as God commanded, Jonah purposefully went the other way! 

Later on in the book of Jonah we find out why. We find out that Jonah knew that God is a loving and gracious and compassionate God, and he was afraid that if the people of Nineveh repented and turned back from their sins that God would forgive them.

And so, rather than going north-east to Nineveh, which would have been about 725 miles from where he started, he instead got on a boat and headed off to Tarshish (which is in modern day Spain).  3,000 miles away from Nineveh!

Of course he never made it to Tarshish, because while he was on the boat a great storm arose. The sailors tried everything in their power to keep the ship afloat, tossing cargo overboard in order to lighten the load. Eventually they come to suspect that someone on the boat must have angered the gods, and they drew straws to find out who it was. Jonah drew the short straw, and was forced to admit that he was running from God. He told the sailors to throw him overboard, and after much protesting, they complied. Jonah would have drowned, but God sent a great fish to save him, swallowing Jonah whole and depositing him on dry land three days later.

The 3 days and 3 nights that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale was a sort of turning point for Jonath. He realized that he could not continue running from God, and so he agreed to go to Nineveh. (He did not, however, repent of his negative thoughts and feelings towards the Ninevites!) 

And so, when the whale spit him out on dry land, and God called him a second time, he headed directly to Nineveh, delivered God’s message to the people of Nineveh, telling them that in 40 days they would be overthrown. And then Jonah sat down to wait in gleeful anticipation to watch God destroy the city.

God however, did not destroy the city, because the Ninevites repented! They turned away from their sinful ways. They cried out to God and God heard their prayers, and forgave them, just as Jonah feared would happen.

It’s All About God

Now if these few verses from Jonah chapter 3 were the only part of the story that had been recorded, we would think of the prophet Jonah as an effective evangelist. A model missionary. A successful preacher. Just think of it — a whole city converted after he preached a sermon that was only 8 words long! If these 6 verses were all we had, and if there was a Preacher’s Hall of Fame, Jonah would be in it.

But set in the context of what we know about Jonah, how he at first ran from God’s call, and that even when he did proclaim God’s message to the people his heart really wasn’t in it, we realize that this story is not really about Jonah at all. It’s not a story about how wonderful Jonah was, or how effective he was as a prophet. It’s not a how-to manual for evangelism. Nor is it even about the Ninevites — for although they did repent and turn from their sins for a time, history tells us that as a people they did not continue to worship God for very long.

Instead I believe this story is all about God. It’s about a God who calls, a God who invites us to follow. A God who sees the potential in us even when we don’t see it in ourselves. A God who invites us to participate in proclaiming God’s Word. A God who invites us into relationship, a God even of second chances (and in many cases, third, and fourth, and fifth). 

It’s about a God who is loving and compassionate, who works even through the most reluctant of messengers. A God who forgives even the most violent offenders. A God who hears and sees. A God who continually calls and invites us to join in God’s mission.

Follow Me

We see this at work in the life of Jesus, who called Simon and Andrew and James and John to follow him. 

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him” (Mark 1:16-20).

Now there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Simon and Andrew and James and John were fishermen. Fishing is an honorable profession, and by participating in the fishing industry they were following along in their fathers’ footsteps, which I’m sure made their families very proud.

But most likely when they were young, they had dreamed of traveling the world, setting off on adventures to foreign lands. Perhaps as teenagers they had wanted to become civic or social leaders, working to bring about positive change in the world. 

Perhaps their parents had hoped or dreamed that at least one of them would become a great religious leader — perhaps a teacher, or prophet, or preacher.

Almost all young Jewish boys in those days were taught to read the Scriptures. The best and brightest among them were tapped to become scholars or teachers of the law. Others who wanted to continue on with their religious education might seek out a rabbi who they wanted to follow or emulate, hoping that that teacher would take them on as their disciple.

But the fact that Simon and Andrew and James and John were young adults by this point means that in many ways, it seems they had missed the boat (pun intended!) to do or become anything other than fishermen. Their dreams of traveling or changing the world, their hopes of making a difference, or leading others to greater understanding or worship of God had been laid by the wayside. Now they spent their days casting nets into the sea, hoping to catch enough fish to feed their families for one more day.

God of Second Chances

That is until Jesus came along, and called and invited them to do the very thing that they had been longing to do all along. It wasn’t too late after all, they weren’t too old, they hadn’t missed the boat. There Jesus was, calling, inviting them to follow. And they heeded and obeyed.

Of course, Jesus’s invitation to follow Him that day was met by more invitations. He continued to invite them, and they continued to follow. He invited them to join him when he ate with sinners and tax collectors, invited them to watch as he performed miracles, invited them to participate as he fed multitudes and to listen as he taught and preached to thousands upon thousands. Eventually he sent them out to teach and to preach, to heal, and to carry on his mission. And they did, in fact, become fishers of people.

Most likely Simon and Andrew, and James and John had no idea what they were getting into that day. And indeed along the way they made countless mistakes, said a lot of things they shouldn’t have said, messed up again and again. But Jesus was always there, ready to forgive, inviting them to follow him.

Because, as in the story of Jonah, this story is not really about the disciples. It’s about God. It’s about a God who continually invites. A God who sees the potential in us even when we don’t see it in ourselves. A God who is trustworthy and true, who will not let us down. A God who will not lead us astray. 

 A God who invites us into relationship. A God who works even through the most reluctant of messengers. A God even of second chances.

Would you choose to follow Jesus this morning? Whether for the first time, or hundredth or thousandth time, would you commit to following Jesus wherever he leads you? 

There are a lot of things and people we can put our trust in in this world, but all of them will let us down at some point. Only Jesus is trustworthy and true. Only Jesus is worthy of all of our worship and devotion.

He’s calling you this morning. Will you follow?